Dyson to try again for pubradio stardom

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Two daily public radio programs for African American audiences have risen from the ashes of News and Notes, a talk show that NPR cancelled in March.

But acrimony over plans, funding and personalities involved in the midday programs has split the African American Public Radio Consortium, a key station constituency for any broadcast aimed at black listeners.

The Michael Eric Dyson Show, which the consortium launched in April, lost its host in July, but Baltimore’s WEAA plans to bring him back in a new program with help from a $505,000 CPB grant.

Upfront with Tony Cox is the consortium’s new daily talk show, launched last month after AAPRC severed ties with Dyson. It is produced by the consortium at the NPR West studios in Culver City, Calif., but NPR has no editorial role. Seventeen stations are airing it.

Dyson, a Georgetown University professor, author of 16 books and prominent social critic who was enthusiastically embraced by AAPRC in March, took a break from the consortium-backed show in July and never returned. His exit, reportedly after a dispute over compensation, turned out to be permanent after he landed a better deal with CPB and WEAA.

Cox, a veteran news broadcaster who hosted the final weeks of News and Notes as a substitute, filled in during Dyson’s absence from The Michael Eric Dyson Show. He now anchors the weekday talk show that AAPRC proudly calls its own.

“Tony was keeping us afloat while we considered other plans,” said Wendy Williams, manager of WCLK in Atlanta. “Everybody knew he had the chops to host the show, and while we were trying to clean this nightmare up, it became obvious that Tony was our guy.”

WEAA, an AAPRC member that played a key role in recruiting Dyson to public radio, is now planning a different show for Dyson, one that involves more recorded segments than the earlier live format. “We want to build on his strengths as a bridge-builder between generations, ages, sexes and races,” said LaFontaine Oliver, g.m.

Oliver worked with Dyson on a syndicated commercial show that ran in 2006 and recruited the host for public radio in his new role as WEAA manager. But Dyson wasn’t on pubradio for long before Oliver began pursuing other production arrangements for his colleague.

“LaFontaine said they wanted to relaunch the show and take it in a different direction,” said Bruce Theriault, CPB senior v.p. for radio. He was impressed with WEAA when he visited the station in May and was receptive to what Oliver had to say about creating a new format for Dyson.

After reviewing their grant request, “it seemed like a good idea to invest in the capacity of WEAA to produce this type of national program,” Theriault said.

“Dr. Dyson has incredible appeal to the African American community, and we thought his presence and voice on public radio would enhance our mission and commitment to diversity,” Theriault said. “His affiliation with WEAA is positive. This is a very strong station in Baltimore.” The grant aligns with CPB’s goal to strengthen stations affiliated with historically black colleges and universities, which includes Morgan State University, he said. WEAA is one of 18 stations in the 20-member consortium that are licensed to historically black schools.

The new production arrangement also opens the door for broader carriage of a Dyson show on mainstream public radio outlets, Theriault said.

The consortium, a partner with NPR in creating The Tavis Smiley Show in 2002, News and Notes in 2005 and Tell Me More in 2007, launched The Michael Eric Dyson Show on a low budget and in a very quick five weeks, according to Loretta Rucker, executive director.

NPR’s cancellation of News and Notes, announced during the network’s painful round of budget cuts last winter, prompted AAPRC to look for ways to put together a midday talk show with its own members. NPR provided some seed money and in early March the production began to take shape. AAPRC’s goal was to launch the show shortly after News and Notes shuttered production March 20.

The Michael Eric Dyson Show debuted April 6 with an impressive roster of guests—Oprah Winfrey, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Spike Lee were just a few of the high-profile African Americans who appeared during the first two weeks. It originated from Monitor Radio studios in Washington, D.C., and was fed weekdays at 1 p.m. through WEAA to the public radio system.

The show’s budget was roughly $450,000, Rucker said. “It was not enough to do the show. It was just enough to get it up and running.” She planned to raise money once the daily production solidified. But there were problems, according to several consortium members.

“When it first came on the air, it was not up to the level of News and Notes,” said Gina Cartier-Simmers, g.m. of WJSU in Jackson, Miss. She waited a while and picked up the Dyson show after “the kinks were worked out,” or so she thought at the time.

“It was rough at the beginning—it was coming together as it went on the air,” said Williams. “In the three or four months it was up, it came a long way, very quickly. But there was no time for piloting.” The broadcast also suffered from “technical glitches” created by the logistics of taping the show in Washington, relaying it by leased line to WEAA and then putting it out by satellite, she said.

The Dyson show, with or without him, moved its production site from Monitor’s studios to WETA in Arlington, Va., and then to WAMU in Washington. This summer, WEAA ended its role in the production.

Dyson had still never signed a contract with the consortium. “It was agreed to in principle . . . , Williams said. “We said, ‘We know this is a start-up, do you want to work with us?’” Dyson was excited to create a show that would be broadcast by stations owned by historically black colleges, she said. “We agreed to work hard to perfect this and bring it forward as we could.”

By late July, Williams was participating in emergency phone calls with Rucker and other AAPRC stations on the breakdown of negotiations with Dyson. “There was concern that LaFontaine wanted to bring the show to Morgan State and produce it.”

Dyson did not respond to interview requests. A news release announcing the CPB grant included his statement: “I am very proud to team with LaFontaine Oliver, one of the most gifted and brilliant radio executives in the business, to bring high quality radio to the airwaves as we explore the pressing social and political issues of the day.”

Oliver declined to comment on why Dyson left the consortium broadcast. “I was actively involved in helping [the consortium] transition the program to another producing station,” Oliver said, “and I’m not exactly sure how things changed from there.”

“Different ideas and visions” for the program became clear over time, Oliver said. “Overall, we have had a concern about its long-term viability.”

“If you talk to Dr. Dyson, he will tell you the only reason he was doing this show was because of his relationship with LaFontaine, whom he knew and trusted,” Theriault said. “The heavy lifting was being done at WEAA anyways. It didn’t seem odd to us that they would ask for support.”

“What we funded was the proposal for a produced show instead of a live show, one that would be more flexible for stations in terms of carriage,” Theriault said. “They were going to add staff, a full-time executive producer and other things that weren’t there. We funded that proposal, and the deliverables in their budget are based on that.”

CPB never received a grant request from AAPRC for its production, Theriault said, and it would be irregular for any consortia to receive money from the corporation’s Radio Program Fund. “We never put money on the radio side to a consortium to produce a show,” he said. CPB’s separate System Support Fund backs ongoing minority radio groups such as AAPRC, Native Public Media and the Latino Public Radio Consortium, according to Theriault.

Only one of four managers of African American stations contacted by Current said they will consider airing the new Dyson show.

WJSU’s Cartier-Simmers revealed how the new Dyson broadcast could gain a key advantage in securing carriage. If it is distributed free of charge to stations, she wants to broadcast it. WJSU had to drop Upfront with Tony Cox because it came with a $8,000 carriage fee. “I took it off not because I didn’t think Tony did a good job. I didn’t think I could afford Tony.”

“That’s what made this episode with Dr. Dyson so painful,” said Candy Capel, manager of WVAS-FM in Montgomery, Ala. “The stations are scraping together to make these shows possible. We have to be careful about our dollars and how they’re treated. None of the African American stations are wealthy by any means. They have received far less than the majority stations in the system.”

Capel and WVAS are done with Dyson. “Why would I support a show with someone who just walked out on something I invested in?”

“My station would not consider airing it,” said Beverly Douglas, p.d. at KBBG in Waterloo, Iowa. “We know that it’s better not to. There were expectations that were not fulfilled by the show. That’s about all I can tell you.”

“People ought to be thinking about public service,” said CPB’s Theriault. “They haven’t heard the new show, so it’s a little early to be making these pronouncements.”

Stations not affiliated with black colleges or AAPRC have expressed interest in the new broadcast, Theriault said, though he declined to name them now.

Dyson is “one of the incredible voices in the African American community,” Theriault said. “He’s on the short Rolodex for all the shows on radio and television, he’s a scholar and he wants to be on public radio. That’s what we ought to be focused on. All the rest is just noise.”

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